Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Ticket that Can't Be Bought : On Grace

I love the idea of trains. Mass transit where you can get up and walk around, go to the dining car, watch the scenery. Hear the rhythmic repetition of the wheels and gears grinding against steel and wood. Travel a pre-determined route through people's backyards and people's city squares and people's lives. Move from city to city the same way my Grandfather got to the Army and back. And maybe the best part, walk right up to the ticket counter the same day you're traveling, look at the huge black board full of letters in yellow lights and buy a ticket that gets you where you need to go right on time.

But what if you went to ride a train but couldn't buy a ticket? No matter how much money you had. What if the man who owns the railroad (naturally he wears a monocle and looks like the monopoly guy) refuses to sell tickets? Instead this strange man decides that from now on he will only give tickets away. And he's quite liberal with his tickets. He gives them to whoever asks: the homeless, the poor, anyone who asks really. But he just won't sell them. No matter what. Because he has decided that he really doesn't want or need anymore money. And besides he's tired of people demanding this or that from him because, after all, they are paying customers.

Most people who have a general background in Christianity have heard that there is a heaven and a hell. They figure that this is basically the point of the Christian faith. There is an ultimate destination and you want to make sure you end up in the right place when your time is up. But how do you get there?

1. If I talk to someone who is basically unfamiliar with the Christian doctrine I find that such a woman or man usually assumes that if they are good enough then God will eventually let them into heaven. Heaven is for good people, Hell is for bad people. They are working to buy a ticket and their ticket is their good works. One might call this moralism (trying to live a very moral life). The problems with this are many, but one can quickly imagine several. Who decided where the cut-off is? How can someone who sins be in the presence of a perfect sinless God? If you were to sin a mere three times a day and live to the ripe old age of 80, how would you account to God for the roughly 80,000 sins you had committed in your lifetime? Why should people from good middle-class homes be privileged to get into heaven, seeing as how all the research connects stable upbringing with moral behavior? These people have tried to buy a ticket to heaven by being good. But the railroad owner has already decided: the tickets are not for sale.

2. If I talk to someone who is somewhat familiar with Christianity I find that such a man or woman usually knows that they can't be good enough to earn their way into heaven, but that Jesus has died for the forgiveness of their sins. So the question remains, how do you get to heaven? Usually there are some core things this person will tell you that you must do. The list varies from person to person, but the usual suspects include: giving money, asking for forgiveness for sins, or attending church. These are, of course, good things, but here is the catch. If you do these things so that God has to take you to heaven when you die, then you are trying to buy your ticket through religious performance. In this scenario Jesus might be your example, your teacher, or your sugar-daddy, but he's not your savior because you are your own savior. You have prayed, given, and attended therefore you feel God has to take you to heaven when you die. And really you feel as though God owes you a pretty good life now, as well. After all you have bought the ticket, you have the right to a pleasant journey. These people have tried to buy a ticket to heaven by being religious. But the railroad owner has already decided: the tickets are not for sale.

3. If I talk to someone who has been a Christian for a very long time and has suffered greatly and whose faith has been painfully refined I usually find a different picture. Such a person knows that God owes them nothing, but that he is in the business of giving out tickets to people who humbly ask for them. In the beginning perhaps the goal was the destination: get to heaven. But as you learn about the graciousness, character, and beauty of this railroad owner, the goal becomes not where you are going, but who you are getting to know. These people often give money, pray prayers, ask for forgiveness, and attend church, but the motivation of their heart is different. They know that God owes no man anything, but that he has already given man everything. Therefore they do these things out of grateful joy, to get to know their God more. He is just that worth it. The railroad owner has already decided: the tickets are not for sale. And these people find in this a statement of how great God truly is.

When every ticket is free, then no man or woman may boast. And in the end God owes no man or woman anything. But he does graciously give us himself. Ultimately in the person of his son and presently in the companionship of his Holy Spirit. In the end a man or woman can say that their faith is in Christ, but behavior is the ultimate litmus test. A person who "puts in their time" or who "does their duty" to get to heaven is not trusting in Jesus, but is trying to buy a free ticket by their own religious performance. You can't buy what is freely given. The only thing to do is humble yourself and know that no matter what you do you can't buy a ticket. And if God has freely given you everything, there is nothing he cannot ask of you.


Brian said...

Excellent! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Every time I see someone with an understanding of the grace of God it brings tears to my eyes. Keep spreading that love and grace... it's the real story :)